This Sunday, we finally get to find out what was the best screenplay of 2015. Just kidding, we only get to find out which two screenplays are finalists for that honor, which will actually never be known. The Academy Awards splits scripts into two categories, original and adapted, as if there are truly only two kinds. At least the divide isn’t too complicated this year. None of the adapted nominees are in fact original works, which just happen to be tied to a franchise or branded material. However, three of the original nominees are actually kind of adapted in that they’re derived from preexisting material – that material just happens to be history.
What even is the merit being judged by Academy members? Is the best original screenplay the one that is the most clever or imaginative? Is the best adapted screenplay the one that does the most work in translating story and dialogue from one medium to another? Is it a valuation of the words on the page or what we can appreciate solely from what we see and hear from the finished film? Studios do send out copies of scripts so voters can see and judge the writing itself, and the nominees are likely selected by people who pay attention to that step in the production process, but how many of those general members voting for the winner are truly thinking about or know how to think about just the script alone? Do they put too much value in dialogue? Plot structure? Characters’ names?
Below I’ve ranked all 10 of this year’s screenplay nominees, from worst to best, and I’ve done so with consideration of the completed movies rather than poring over the technicalities involved in how these Oscar categories ought to be handled. I haven’t read the actual screenplays or, in the case of the adapted category, the books they’re based on. Except in one or two cases involving specific details, I don’t know exactly which parts of the movies come from the screenwriter’s mind or from an author or the director or the actors’ ideas and maybe some ad-libbing. This list is very subjective, I’ll admit. My number one pick isn’t any more official in its bestness than the Oscar winners will be. I welcome discussion about where I’m “right” or “wrong,” but just so you know this is all just one man’s opinion.
I do not get the love for this movie. It’s got a few things going for it, namely Brie Larson, but the story isn’t all that believable and the dialogue can be very annoying. Regarding the former, that’s from the novel, I guess, but again I’m just looking at these movies as they play out in the end, no matter the origins. And the way that the little boy escapes is just preposterous to me. As for his much-imitated pre-escape dialogue, that’s also surely from the book and even worse. It’s like Larson’s character was supposed to be heavily influenced by Margaret Wise Brown’s classic children’s book “Goodnight, Moon” and Yorgos Lanthimos’s film Dogtooth in her ideas about language. There’s a lot to accept here that might fit better in the wording, in novel or script, but doesn’t work at all on screen.
9. Straight Outta Compton
I’m not sure what this is doing in the original screenplay category, and I do like the movie plenty. It’s not that original, and not just because it’s based on a true story. Plus it really loses its edge and its steam in the second half. But maybe the script is intentionally supposed to start out great and full of integrity only to become more glossy and conventional because that’s how the characters evolve, too? If that’s on purpose, I’ll gladly move this to the #1 slot. It still wouldn’t make it the most enjoyable screenplay, just the smartest. Straight Outta Compton deserves points at least for being so in tune with black history and culture despite it having four credited writers, all of them white.
8. The Martian
If the Oscar for best adapted screenplay goes to the one that most improves upon its source material, this might be the champion. From what I hear, anyway. I haven’t read more than a snippet of Andy Weir’s science-heavy book. Still, I don’t think the end result is anything close to perfection, either. There should be a more focused perspective with this story, and also from what I hear the book does in fact get that right. Enough about the book, though. On paper, and I mean in the script not the book, it probably seems like a good idea to keep going back and forth between Mars and Earth to follow two separate narratives. But as executed, as well as Ridley Scott can do, it makes for a very disjointed movie. It is the best adapted space program propaganda, however.
7. The Big Short
If I accept the classification of this by our colleague Matt Patches as a documentary, then it’s a fine yet still very wordily informational script. As a narrative, however, it tells way too much more than it shows and for all the attempt to simplify the financial crisis for its audience it’s still extremely clunky, convoluted and oftentimes still very confusing. The cameos are clever but also too distracting to be as helpful as they’re intended. All of the main characters are just pieces to be moved around and fit a part of the puzzle of a story, and yet where the movie does try to give us more development of a human being (Steve Carell’s role) it’s a terrible idea, totally straying. The movie is flashy and fun, though, so it seems great.
6. Inside Out
Never mind the criticism that Pixar seems to have ripped off the TV show Herman’s Head for their latest animated feature. And I’ll even dismiss the very frustrating gender stereotyping with its glimpses inside the brains of the main character’s parents. Inside Out is plenty clever. That isn’t to say it’s as innovative in either a broad sense or in all of its specifics as people seem to give it credit for. Much of the world that’s been invented to depict a child’s mind is the most obvious way of creatively handling it. Not all, but a lot. There’s nothing I’d say was brilliantly conceived. That’s not terrible. It’s obvious because it works. And it all comes together rather perfectly for a fresh take on a road picture.
There’s nothing brilliant about Brooklyn, either, but it sure is just a nice story with believable characters and dialogue all the way through. Maybe that should be enough of an achievement. Maybe the screenplay doesn’t need to wow us to be the best, but when it comes to something deserving of an Oscar, I do want to be wowed. I want new ways of telling stories, even if it’s clear with this that an old fashioned movie can be dependable and wonderful. It is funny that this is a movie about how it’s hard to go back to the old world when you’ve dipped into the new, and yet it is so old world itself. Perhaps there could have been more to the drama of Eilis’s conflict in the third act, and maybe there could have been a greater balance between her two suitors, because it does seem intent on being more about that romantic triangle than it winds up with. It’s just plain good, a proper halfway point to this list.
4. Bridge of Spies
The latest from director Steven Spielberg may not have been as thrilling as audiences wished (we can blame the trailers), but it sure is a lot funnier than expected. We should have known, what with the Coen Brothers involved with the writing. It’s a very interesting script and therefore a very interesting movie. Unlike Brooklyn it’s not bogged down in its hokey old-fashioned aspects (particularly where it pays homage to movies like To Kill a Mockingbird) because they are mixed deliciously with modern touches to result in a movie that’s not actually all that comparable to any other. Given that the Coens co-wrote the thing and given its on-screen reminder of Billy Wilder’s One Two Three, though, it could have been even more broadly absurd and poignant.
3. Ex Machina
While three of the original screenplays are based on existing stories (true stories), this one is kind of like an adaptation of the Turing Test. That’s the most simplistic way of looking at the movie’s story, anyway, as it doesn’t really go too far beyond a dramatic depiction of the test being played out between a man and a robot. Alex Garland’s plot isn’t the reason his script is so great, though. That’s just the superficial situation through which he weaves additionally thought-provoking dialogue and characterization. The writing of Oscar Isaacs’s character, regardless of whatever the actor might have contributed, is one of the most surprising yet also most perfectly spot-on in years. I didn’t initially appreciate the ending, believing it too obvious as far as the killer AI trope goes, but like a lot of things in this movie it just takes some extra thought to see its entire brilliance.
I don’t want to dismiss the work of Phyllis Nagy, but the quality of the writing on display with Carol seems, more than the other adapted screenplays this year, to be thanks primarily to the source material. Everyone loves the title character’s line “What a strange girl you are … Flung out of space,” for instance, and that comes from author Patricia Highsmith. That’s the sort of thing that makes this kind of judgment of screenplays, especially adapted screenplays, so complicated. Do we award Nagy when Highsmith deserves most of the credit for brilliant characters and dialogue? Do we honor the screenwriter for retaining that which is so brilliant? I don’t care. The only important thing when it come to watching the movie and that lunch scene in particular is how extraordinary the characters and dialogue are in it.
Next: Mad Max: Fury Road Should Qualify For the Original Screenplay Oscar
When I consider the best in screenwriting, I try to give equal appreciation towards those films where the characters and dialogue are realistic and those where the characters and dialogue are more representational and not meant to be taken as exact replicas of life. Especially when it comes to true stories (the latter is where my absolute favorite script of the year, the shockingly not-nominated Steve Jobs fits). Spotlight manages to cover both areas for me. I was drawn into the story and felt like I was watching real people go through their investigative journalism process in real time, and I also accepted the artificial constructs of them as characters and the plotting of their story. As with The Big Short, I’m willing to accept Spotlight as somewhat documentary in its pursuit of the truth, for the film and its characters alike, yet unlike The Big Short it’s also a finely tuned, terrifically (and consistently) acted drama. It’s just a perfectly written movie in that it covers a story that’s equally character-driven and exposition-driven and never, ever feels false to the world or the ideas it presents to us.